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Jorge Cordova: Viral trends in shrimp farming

January 20, 2019

The aquaculture industry will play a pivotal role in feeding the rising billions. Innovations in shrimp farming offer solutions for health and sustainability, helping producers meet the global demand. 

The following is an edited transcript of Nicole Erwin's interview with Jorge Cordova. Click below to hear the full audio:



Nicole:           I'm talking with Jorge Cordova, production manager for shrimp farms at Naturisa in Ecuador. Jorge, tell me, how much does the world love shrimp?


Jorge:             I can tell you a little bit about the world of shrimp in Ecuador to begin with.


Nicole:           Okay.


Jorge:             This is an industry which has been around for almost 50 years now. It all began back in '68, around '68–'69, when they built a huge pond, which was naturally filled with water, and then tiny animals would grow. People noticed — these first entrepreneurs noticed — that they could harvest shrimp out of that pond.


                        Then the '70s came and the first efforts to put some serious money into it appeared. The '80s were the boom of the industry. A lot of people were going into the business. The '90s were the disease decade — a lot of disease and problems. And after 1999, when we got hit by a very strong disease named white spot — which is a virus, basically — the whole industry started to mature. And it's been 18 years now since we got hit by white spot, and the production has been increasing.


                        Now, that's Ecuador, but the world of shrimp is growing. There are a lot of people growing shrimp all over the world these days. Asia is one of the big guys; India is growing. Even in the U.S., you have people growing shrimp in small facilities, indoor facilities. So, it's pretty exciting. Shrimp is one of the commodities that has been representing aquaculture all over the place, and it's probably one of the species that's going to be serving the purpose of feeding the world in the years to come. So, it's exciting. Every day in shrimp farming is a new learning experience. You never know everything.


Nicole:           Are there parts of the world where shrimp farming is more accessible where the infrastructure is available for people to get into it from the beginning?


Jorge:             Yes, yes, especially today. For example, in Ecuador, there is a growing number of investors who are getting into low-salinity shrimp culture. This activity doesn't have a lot of entry barriers. It's not that hard, money-wise, to get into it. So, yes, there are definitely different ways to grow shrimp, and that means you can put big money into it — but you can also be a small investor and put some of your savings into it. So, yeah, there are quite a few ways to get into it. You can be a big investor or a small one. It's only a matter of being willing to take the risk to farm shrimp. It's not an easy task, but it’s a lot of fun.


Nicole:           What kind of environment is needed to farm shrimp?


Jorge:             It all began in what they call a “euryhaline environment,” which is basically aquatic systems that can change salinity from low to high. But these days, they're growing shrimp in low-salinity, almost freshwater conditions, mid-salinity and even ocean salinity. So, there are quite a lot of foundations that you can use to grow shrimp.


Nicole:           Like most areas of aquaculture, disease management is always an issue. You mentioned white spot syndrome.


Jorge:             If you do the right thing, in terms of providing the animals with the right conditions — in terms of nutrition, health, environmental health — then you can avoid disease. You can grow shrimp without diseases. There are ways around it.



Nicole:           Well, in regard to prevention, how much does the overall health of the shrimp, [with help] from [a] nutritional diet, provide its own sort of natural defenses against disease?


Jorge:             That's a basic point. For example, these days, we're learning, and we're trying to work through nutrition and we're trying to change the microbiome — the whole micro-structure that these animals have in their guts and in their environment. By doing that, we've been able to help these animals stay healthier in the pond conditions. So, nutrition is a key factor, as a matter of fact, and it has to do with the microbes: the bacteria and all these microbial ecosystems these animals have in the gut and in the surrounding environment. So, yeah, nutrition and health, they go hand in hand.


Nicole:           Are probiotics being used in shrimp?


Jorge:             Of course. As a matter of fact, I'm going to be presenting some of the working hypotheses we use in our daily farm operation in which we try to combine prebiotics and probiotics in search of some type of synergistic effects, and they call it synbiotics. We believe that synbiotics is a key future element for the development and the increase [of] healthy shrimp production.


Nicole:           What is the industry using as feed mostly now, from your experience?


Jorge:             Well, there's a lot of research that's been done in shrimp nutrition for the last 40 years, at least. So, now, what they're doing is they are manufacturing pellet feed. A pellet is a piece of feed, so to speak, where they have put all the science and all the technology and all the development that has been achieved after many years of research in terms of what kind of protein they need, what percentage of protein they need, what kind of energy these animals need. There's a lot of science in the feed, so it's basically a pellet that we're using to feed the animals.


Nicole:           How often do shrimp need to be fed?


Jorge:             That's another good one. In the last five years, we've learned so much about it. Just to give you an idea, six or seven years ago, when we were feeding a pond — — basically a huge lake, a pond where you have your animals — so, we were feeding these animals once, twice a day, maybe three times a day. We were throwing pellets out of a boat. We were very happy doing this. I would say in around 2013, this company in Australia came out with a brand-new device that is a software that lets you listen to shrimp feeding in the pond. It happens that the mouthpieces of these animals make a noise that can be detected. Imagine one animal, ten animals, a million animals feeding — so you have a lot of noise. These people are able to capture the noise, and they can tell by the noise intensity how much to feed. This device is able to feed the animals 200 times a day, 150 times, [in] small amounts, and they love it. You get improved efficiencies, in terms of feed conversion rate and growth and survival, by feeding the animals whenever they want to be fed. Before, we were feeding them early in the morning, and now, we found that they don't want to eat early in the morning; they are night feeders. By using technology, we can understand better how to feed these animals. So, to answer your question of how many times we have to feed the animals: as many times as they want.


Nicole:           How accessible is that technology?


Jorge:             It's out there. I mean, you can go and pay for it, and it pays for itself. As a matter of fact, when we first used this technology, we didn't know if it was going to work or not. I mean, we were supposed to feed these animals that were spread out in a huge pond. We were going to throw the feed in just a small area of the pond. Would they come get the feed? Leave from the feeding area without fighting each other for feed? But we learned that these animals are able to come and get their feed.


                        This technology is available. When you look at the numbers after you harvest and all the gains that you get in terms of efficiency, feed conversion, survival and so on, it pays [for] itself. So, it's out there and anyone can use it.


Nicole:           Back to regulating healthy environments, a company in 2016 was awarded grant funding for research using genome-editing technology, CRISPR-Cas, to target the genome of the host organism. The study argued that success would allow for a more rapid response to viral outbreaks, more rapid introduction of wild shrimp that can be certified virus-free, and provide a needed tool for the industry to improve biosecurity. What do you think about genome editing as a method of control?


Jorge:             You got it right there. But we're just at the beginning. The learning curve of genome studies is just beginning. There are probably a few groups in the world putting money into this. They're going to grow in the future. But, definitely, that's the way we want to go. This is going to happen in the years to come. It's just beginning.


Nicole:           How economically feasible would it be to apply this kind of technology in research and development?


Jorge:             Again, I believe strongly that this kind of technology would pay for itself. It would demand some initial economical effort. Money has got to be put in place for the development of all this genome research, but over time, I'm pretty sure this will bring back benefits to initial investors. This is just beginning.


Nicole:           Well, as it does develop, let's say that you can create disease-resistant shrimp.


Jorge:             You can, for example, select animals by using some sort of genomic traits that are resistant to a particular environment, condition, disease. So, now, we got a light, a ball of light, that is telling us, "This is the animal you want to reproduce." Before, we didn't have it. So that's kind of an empirical way to explain what's going to happen. So, yeah, there's going to be a lot of economic implications in the future by using this new technology.


Nicole:           As it develops, do you think that it would require a new label for consumers?


Jorge:             No, I don't think so, because there's no gene transferred from one species to the next. This is just a way to select animals that are more fit to a particular environment — animals that may grow faster, that may survive better under the tough environmental or pond conditions. So, I don't think so, no. I don't think we should tell the consumer this is a different product. This is not new; it's the same shrimp. We're only taking those most ready for the environment.


Nicole:           I see. Are viruses like white spot too strong for more natural approaches toward prevention? I mean, what are some best management practices that you've seen work?


Jorge:             This is funny. When we got hit by white spot back in 1999 — and I'm talking about in Ecuador — the academia and a lot researchers were saying, "Well, guys, you are not going to be able to make it back from this,” because we were using what they call “SPF,” [or] specific pathogen-free animals. Then, you have to select those animals that are completely free of viruses, those animals that are very healthy, and those are the ones that you want to use. But the way the infrastructure and the way the industry is built in Ecuador doesn't let you do that. We're talking about huge outdoor ponds. There is no way we can maintain biosecurity in these kinds of ponds, and you need biosecurity to grow SPF animals.


                        So, the only chance that we had at that time was by taking the shrimp that were surviving the environment, bringing them back to reproduction and bringing the babies back to the pond. So, we did that time and again.


                        Five or six years down the road, we were having animals that were surviving. We saw an improved survival. There's a lot of hypotheses surrounding how that happened. Quite a few researchers have their own ideas. I don't have a clear picture of exactly what happened; either the animals gained resistance or the virus lost the pathogenicity. It can be any one of those. The fact of the matter is, these animals we have in Ecuador now are surviving better than before and growing better than before.


                        I'm going to be showing, in the [ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference] on Tuesday, some of the statistic production data from Ecuador. You're going to be able to see how production has been increasing year after year. So, when talking about shrimp, it's kind of hard to tell. But, probably, the kind of animals you use for your system should depend on the type of system you're using. That’s probably the best way to put it.


Nicole:           How curious are consumers about shrimp farming, and how will their interest drive the industry in the future in feeding and maintaining pond health?


Jorge:             I would love them to be a lot more curious, so they can differentiate and tell where the shrimp they are consuming comes from. The industry in Ecuador has an initiative, which began this year, I believe, to let the world know that we are growing shrimp under sustainable conditions using synbiotics — using all kind of natural products to grow our shrimp in the most natural way.


Nicole:           Just to expand on that a bit, where do you see environmental controls headed in order to meet future consumer demands?


Jorge:             Synbiotics. We were talking at the beginning about prebiotics, probiotics — there's a lot of learning to be done in this area. Trying to use probiotics and prebiotics to create this synergic effect that would benefit the animals in terms of health, immunological status and capacity to assimilate with the feed. If you have a healthy animal, whatever feed you're giving to them, they are going to assimilate with it in an improved way. Any diseased animal is not going to use feed, no matter what — even if you have the best feed quality. If the animals are diseased, they are not going to make it. So, I think that's one of the things to look for in the future. The more environmental control, or the more naturally we can grow shrimp, the better off we're going to be. It's possible. I mean, we can produce a lot of shrimp and grow them in a most sustainable way. This is possible.


Nicole:           Jorge Cordova is the production manager for shrimp farms at Naturisa in Ecuador. Thank you so much.


Jorge:             Thank you.



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